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Parenting Plans for Special Needs Children

Two renowned psychologists who work with children in the context of divorce and separation, Daniel B. Pickar, PhD, ABPP and Robert L. Kaufman, PhD, ABPP, presented a seminar at the 50th Anniversary Conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in Los Angeles entitled "Parenting Plan Considerations for Special Needs Children."

The seminar was geared toward educating family law professionals who are faced with the challenge of developing appropriate parenting plans for children with special needs in the context of divorce and separation.

Drs. Pickar and Kaufman first discussed the term "special needs children" and explained how it encompasses a variety of childhood conditions, including learning disabilities, profound cognitive impairment, serious medical illness, developmental disorders (such as autism), physical disabilities and severe psychiatric disturbance.

They went on to provide ten specific tips for family law professionals who are helping families develop appropriate parenting and safety plans for special needs children:

1) The Basics:  Develop a basic knowledge about the most commonly seen special needs children encountered by the Probate and Family Court, including children with autistic spectrum disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, learning disabilities, and, especially with teenagers, serious depression.

2) The Unusual:  Develop a familiarity with the more unusual types of special needs children, including those with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, visual or hearing impairment, or high risk medical conditions.

3) Beware of what is "Developmentally Appropriate":  A parenting plan that is developmentally appropriate for children of different ages may not be appropriate for special needs children. Shared parenting guides that discuss such age-appropriate, ideal parenting plans are readily available online.  But such guides will often only state that the special needs of the child is a factor that must be considered - without going into detail on how the plan may need to be adjusted based on the specific special needs of a particular child.

4) Which Parent is Best-Equipped:  Practitioners should consider a parent's personality, parenting skills, and temperament for caring for a child with special needs.  In many cases, the decision about which parent should be the primary physical custodian of a child with special needs comes down to which parent has more time and flexibility to provide specialized care.

5) Which Parent will Buy-in:  Similar to tip #4, determine which parent will be willing to attend and participate in the treatment plan.

6) Environment:  Determine which parent can maintain the structure, routine and environmental safety and consistency that is required for children with autism spectrum disorders.

7) Collaborate:  Parents need to collaborate with each other and with treating professionals to craft the best parenting plan for a special needs child.

8) Monitor:  Parents need to closely monitor completion of schoolwork, collaborate with each other to maintain consistency and clarity in terms of expectations, especially in dealing with children with AD/HD and learning disorders.

9) Depressed Teenagers:  With depressed teenagers, a parent's concern over child-sharing must be trumped by preservation of life concerns and the parent's active support of the teenager's participation in mental health treatment.

10) Beware of Groups:  Always remember that each case is unique.  Research conclusions are drawn from data about groups of children, not an individual child - and there is no "one size fits all" solution.

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